Let women drive, says Saudi prince

RIYADH • A prominent Saudi prince and business magnate has added his voice to the debate over women's rights in his country, urging it to abandon its driving ban for women.

"Stop the debate," Prince Alwaleed bin Talal wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. "It's time for women to drive."

In a four-page letter posted on his personal website, he argued that "it is high time that Saudi women started driving their cars", and he couched his views in economic terms, noting that foreign drivers are typically paid 3,800 riyals (S$1,450) a month to shuttle women around.

The cost, he argued, contributes to capital outflows and strains household budgets at a time when Saudi Arabia is trying to shift its economy away from reliance on oil.

He also said the ban could not be defended under religious law.

"Such a ban on driving is fundamentally an infringement on a woman's rights, particularly as it continues to exist after she won her right to an education and salaried employment," he wrote.

But his statement seemed unlikely to affect policy.

In April, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has amassed power in capital Riyadh and is seen as a contender for the throne, said he was "not convinced" that women should be allowed to drive, adding that his reservations concerned resistance in society rather than religious doctrine.

The driving ban is enforced by Saudi Arabia's religious police and it has been the occasional target of protests.

Women were allowed to vote and run in local elections in December last year for the first time. But they have a low rate of participation in the workforce, a long-term problem for the country as it tries to diversify its economy and rely less on foreign workers.

Prince Alwaleed is not in the government and does not speak for it, but, as one of the world's wealthiest investors, he enjoys a higher profile than most other Saudi royals.

A billionaire, he is particularly active in the hotel and construction industries and has extensive holdings in the United States and Europe.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 02, 2016, with the headline 'Let women drive, says Saudi prince'. Print Edition | Subscribe